Let us stipulate at the outset that not every loss in a big game is the manager’s fault. Managers’ decisions are more highly scrutinized and second-guessed in October, but not every loss is a function of the levers they pull. Players need to execute and, often, they don’t. When they don’t, we should blame them, not the manager.
All of that being said, the Dodgers’ loss in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series should be laid squarely at the feet of manager Dave Roberts. The players he put in a position to secure the game failed to execute, yes, but they should not have been in that position in the first place.
Starter Rich Hill was cruising in this game. He had allowed only one hit and had pitched a shutout through six innings when he began the seventh. Yes, he allowed a leadoff walk to Xander Bogaerts, but he came back and struck out Eduardo Nunez and was at 91 pitches. Maybe that’s a lot of pitches these days, but there was no suggestion that Hill was gassed and, after an 18-inning marathon the night before, you’d hope that your 14-year veteran has at least a couple of more batters in him, especially given that the bottom of the order was up. Let Hill get through the seventh, put Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen in in the eighth and ninth and even up this series. That’s the smart play here, right?
But no, for whatever reason, Roberts pulled Hill and put in Scott Alexander, who promptly walked a batter to put two on. And then, even more inexplicably, Roberts called on Ryan Madson to get out of that jam. Which was objectively insane.
Madson blew up in the first two games of the World Series, allowing two inherited runs to score in Game 1 and three inherited runs to score in Game 2, costing the Dodgers each of those contests. In light of that it would not have been surprising if Madson had never been seen again. At the very least one would think that, if he was used again, it would be to start an inning when the Dodgers had a lead or in mop-up duty as a means of saving other pitchers’ arms or helping Madson gain his confidence back. When you screw up on the big stage, you have to work your way back. A veteran like Madson knows this and a good manager like Dave Roberts should know it to.
Yet Roberts put him in a tough jam for the third time in four games, and Madson crumbled for the third time in four games. The three-run homer he gave up to Mitch Moreland here represented the sixth and seventh inherited run he allowed to score out of his sixth and seventh runners he inherited in this series. That’s a simply remarkable accomplishment. And no, this is not an exercise in hindsight. I and every Dodgers fan I follow groaned when Hill was pulled and groaned even harder when Madson game into the game. When Madson made it 4-3 it was less a matter of shock than it was resignation.
The Mitch Moreland homer, obviously, did not end the game, but it all but eliminated any margin for error the Dodgers had. When Kenley Jansen gave up the game-tying homer to Steve Pearce the following inning it was one of those instances of a player not executing I talked about above. Jansen is a guy the Dodgers have to be able to rely on and, for the second straight night, he gave up a dinger when he really needed to not do that. Of course, because of Madson’s previous failure making things so tight, it was a game-changer.
It was the top of the ninth when the Red Sox broke things wide open, obviously. A lot of that had to do with the Red Sox simply remembering that they were the Red Sox. Their bats had gone cold for almost all of Game 3 and the first several innings of Game 4, but they were not going to be silent forever. That they put up a five-spot here was a combination of Dodgers pitchers simply not getting the job done and Red Sox hitters showing why Boston had the best offense in baseball all year long. But it was also something enabled by Dave Roberts going to his pen an inning too early, calling on the wrong guys at a critical time, blowing a nice lead and then having nowhere to go when things got tough in the ninth.
The better team won. The Boston Red Sox hitters, after a day and a half slump, showed just how dangerous they can be. But it’s not had to imagine things going very differently in this game had Rich Hill been given more rope in the seventh, Ryan Madson never seen the light of day and the rest of the Dodgers bullpen being required to close things out over two innings instead of parts of three.
And that, it would seem, is squarely on Dave Roberts.
UPDATE: In postgame interviews, Dave Roberts revealed two relevant facts. First: that heading into the seventh inning, Rich Hill had told Roberts to keep an eye on him in case he tires, and that Roberts had never heard that before. Second, Roberts revealed that Pedro Baez was not available tonight, for whatever reason.
Some might cite these facts to rebut my charges against Roberts above, but nah, I’m not buying it. For one thing, Hill merely telling Roberts to watch him because he might tire, does not in fact mean that Hill was tired when he was pulled. Indeed, Hill suggested himself after the game that he did not tell Roberts that he was tired at all. For another thing, not having Pedro Baez available, while notable, did not obligate Roberts to put Ryan Madson in a game with two runners on base after he had already cost the Dodgers two games in this World Series already due to failing in such situations.
So, no, I don’t think Roberts is off the hook here.